Never Stay Down: Handicapped as a Pilot, Returned to Air Force

25 years have passed since the fatal Bell AH-1 Cobra crash in northern Israel. The crash killed Lt. Col. Zion Bar-Or, the squadron commander. It also left 2nd Lt. Yuval Wagner – then a young pilot – severely injured and bound to a wheelchair, just like his father, who was also injured during his military service. Today, Lt. Col. Yuval Wagner stands at the head of the “Access Israel” organization, which promotes handicapped welfare in Israel, alongside a career in the IDF.

Lt. Col. Yuval Wagner is an interesting person. Today, he serves as an officer in the Israeli Air Force – but he started his way in the army as a new recruit 29 years ago in the Israeli Air Force Flight Academy.

Lt. Col. Yuval Wagner

Lt. Col. Yuval Wagner. Picture: Zman Rishon

Lt. Col. Wagner always dreamt of serving in the Air Force.

“Since I was a little boy, I would hang out in the squadrons with my parents’ friends who were pilots. By then I knew that I wanted to be a pilot.”

Yuval had a good role model. His father, Danny Wagner, was the first handicapped Israeli pilot. 20 years after his injury, sustained during service, he was stationed in the US for four years with his family. This was the first time Yuval saw that disabled people flying a customized plane on their own. In 1983, upon returning to Israel with his family, Danny sighed up for an official flight course and graduated, successfully becoming the first disabled pilot in Israel. Yuval recalls:

“When I passed the ‘initial’ stages in the flight academy, there was a small competition between my dad and I –who is going to fly first. I started flying the Fouga CM.170 Magister and my dad flew the Piper PA-18.”

After a year and four months in Israeli Air Force flight academy Yuval started specializing in helicopters. (The winner of the competition, though, was Danny.)

“It didn’t take long before I ‘fell in love’ with the helicopter world, and when I did, I became one of the best pilots in the field.”

Upon finishing his training in the flight academy, Yuval was placed in the Defender Helicopter Squadron and started an advanced training course. By mid-1986, he joined the Northern Cobra Squadron.

“When I saw the Cobra, it was love at fight sight. We trained for a year and everything was smooth. Then came the final stage: the test flight that authorizes you to become a helicopter commander.”

The test flight was set on March 18th, 1987, and Wagner was assigned to fly with the then-squadron commander, Lt. Col. Zion Bar-Or. He recalls the day:

“The weather was nice, no complications predicted. We flew north, towards the Golan Heights. Suddenly, above the orchards in the area of Tirat Zvi, the chopper started to shake badly. Before we could respond, it jerked sharply to the left and spiraled downwards. We realized that we are going to crash and tried to announce it over the radio. Only later did I realize that the radio wasn’t working.”

They started plummeting from 400 feet and at 110 knots. After a few seconds, Yuval and Zion crashed into the orchard. The helicopter hit the ground on its side. Later, the cause was found to be was a technical problem in the steering system.

A passerby who witnessed the crash called his manager on the radio.

“I was covered in leaves and mud, so the orchard manager didn’t notice me at first. He went straight to Zion and saw that he was dead. Using the last of my strength, I managed to call out to him and say that I was barely breathing and couldn’t feel my body. The fact that the helicopter was filled with gas and ammunition had me panicked.”

Yuval gave instructions to the manager, who managed to disconnect the battery and prevent a possible explosion.

After a few hours, in which military forces tried to rescue Yuval, the 669 search and rescue unit arrived at the scene, rescued Yuval and retrieved Zion’s body. He was then taken to the Hadasa Ein-Karem hospital in Jerusalem. The doctors who treated Yuval determined that his spine was broken at the neck, which meant he would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Two days later, Yuval received his ranks in the hospital.

“Right after I received my ranks, I asked what had happened to Zion. The officer didn’t answer. Only after they determined I was out of danger, they told me that he had died.”

After being bedridden for three weeks, Yuval started an eight-month rehabilitation process at the Tel HaShomer Base. Towards the end of the process, he was offered a position in the computing unit of the Israeli Air Force by Brig. Gen. Shmulik Ben-Rom. Yuval accepted.

In 1987 Yuval was finished rehabilitation and re-started his career service. In 1991 he began academic studies as part of his military career, and returned to the unit in 1994 with a BA in Business Management and Information Technology.

Lt. Col. Yuval Wagner at "Access Israel" offices.

Lt. Col. Yuval Wagner at “Access Israel” offices. Picture: Walla

13 years ago, Yuval was permitted to establish the “Access Israel” organization, which promotes the welfare of disabled people in Israel. The organization aims to improve quality of life for the 500,000 handicapped people in Israel, as well as raise awareness to the needs of the disabled.

“[My children] see me and their grandfather in a wheelchair and as a result of that, they react very naturally to my disability. They’re proud of me for being a pilot and for working in the IAF.”

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